Israel Police arrested 21 people Tuesday night for allegedly coercing business owners and public officials into advertising in a newspaper linked to a radical faction of a Lithuanian haredi sect.
The arrests across Israel came after a massive six-month undercover operation, targeting suspects who allegedly threatened and extorted managers and senior officials in private and state-run businesses, forcing them to advertise in the "HaPeles" newspaper.
The Jerusalem District Police fraud unit launched the undercover investigation following dozens of complaints by business leaders, who said they were hounded incessantly by phone, e-mail, and fax. Some 200 police officers, Special Patrol Unit officers, Border Police officers and detectives participated in the investigation.
Two of the suspects, both residents of Jerusalem and well-known in the haredi sector, are suspected of operating the call center from which the alleged extortion was conducted.
The suspects allegedly made daily contact with a call center dubbed "the battle line", identifying themselves with a password. Once their identities were confirmed, they allegedly received specific instructions on whom to target and with what frequency, as well as contact information and the precise wording to use.
According to police, the suspects then contacted company representatives dozens or even hundreds of times by various methods, causing significant disruptions.
The 21 suspects -- residents of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Yeruham, and Modi'in Illit – were to be questioned by officers from the national fraud squad, or Lahav 433.
Targets of the purported harassment reported that it had begun after they advertised in rival newspaper "Yated Ne'eman" and had gone on for at least a year.
"They started calling from 5:30 am until 2:00 at night," said one source. "There were 50-60 calls at a time.
When I would answer and try to have a conversation, some of them were polite and some really threatened me. There were kids and adults on the other end of the line who cursed, shouted, and screamed."
Another source said that employees' parents also received calls at unusual hours. "My mother told me that one morning they contacted her and said, 'your son is taking a side and boycotting. You will pay the price, both the company and a personal price,'" he said. "The most frightening thing is that someone knows where I live and where I leave with my children to take them to school. It looks like some of these people are not mentally sound, receive orders, call at six in morning in an insane frenzy and won't hang up."
Another source said companies' switchboards were overloaded and simply collapsed. "They wouldn't stop harassing and threatening us to an indescribable extent," he said. "I'm glad the police took action and put an end to this."
The alleged harassment extended beyond these threats. Some employees said they were visited at their homes. In other cases, they said, their voicemails were broken into and their outgoing messages changed to recordings vilifying rival newspaper "Yated Ne'eman". Threatening letters were also purportedly sent to employees warning that "everything has a price".
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